Developed by Studio Nanafushi and published by Marvelous/XSEED in the west, Dead or School is something a little different from what we’ve come to expect from the publisher. Out now on PlayStation 4 and the Nintendo Switch, we played the PS4 version for this review.
Described as a fast-paced 2.5D adventure, Dead or School’s focus on combat in a sideways-scrolling beat’em up-like setting makes for a game we rarely see outside of retro-inspired releases. It’s interesting because of that, but also because of the game’s premise. Tokyo’s been overrun by mutants after a virus outbreak, and at the start of the game we find ourselves two generations later, with the remaining human population living in refuges under the ground.
Our protagonist Hisako, as her parents before her, has never even seen daylight, until a secret elevator is found and it ignites a will to go back up. This is partly fueled because of a surviving grandmother, who regales the children with stories of how wonderful it was back in the day to go to school and hang out with other kids. Not familiar with this experience, Hisako wants to reclaim what was once theirs.
It’s a bit of a silly setup and outside of a few collectibles the mutant outbreak that serves as the game’s backdrop isn’t really explored, which is a shame because the “generations below ground” premise is a promising once. Instead, the focus is on combat, as you face off against numerous mutants as well as bosses at the end of each level.
A lot of the action takes place inside Tokyo’s old subway systems, where you save people from the clutches of these mutants. Though they repeat themselves, there is a good roster of different mutants, with the bigger bosses being especially interesting because they require their own tactics to defeat – and in some cases you also need to level up before you’re able to successfully take them on.
Leveling up is a big part of the experience, and also allows for plenty of customization. You go into battle with a bladed weapon, a gun and a higher-powered launcher, but there’s a selection of weapons for each category – each with their own benefits and disadvantages. On top of that, individual weapons can also be enhanced and/or modified with pickups and/or money that you find along this way. This can either make them stronger, or more durable, or it can give them new abilities. If that doesn’t cut it for a certain level or boss fights, you can always briefly retrace your steps and level up – which feels marginally grindy but never too bad.
There are a lot of choices to make and while this makes for good replay value, the campaign already runs for a good 25 to 30 hours so there’s definite value for money there. But as deep as the character customization is, the gameplay itself is relatively straightforward. You can jump and dodge in addition to attacking, but that’s it (until you unlock a secondary attack later on).
Visually, Dead or School walks the line between “retro” and “dated”, though I’m leaning more towards the latter since the game feels like its own thing rather than a retro-inspired brawler or something like that. The cutscenes in particular feel quite ‘last gen’, but the general atmosphere is well realized – I especially liked the panning camera shots that showcased how far underground people now live and what that world looks like now.
Overall, Dead or School isn’t groundbreaking despite its good use of character customization. It is, however, a solid combat-centered game with a setting worth exploring and plenty of content to last you for quite a while.